Cal Turner, Jr, served as CEO of Dollar General for 37 years until his retirement in 2002. As the book title implies, the company was founded by his father, Cal Turner, Sr., but My Father’s Business goes beyond a traditional father-son story to embrace three generations of the Turner family.
In much the same way that Sam Walton’s personal values were imprinted on the culture of Walmart, Cal Turner, Jr., attributes the founding business principles of Dollar General to his grandfather, James Luther Turner. With only a third-grade education, Luther’s prolific work ethic and innate business abilities led to the October 1939 opening of J.L. Turner and Son Wholesale Dry Goods, Shoes, Notions and Hosiery, the family business that would become Dollar General.
The author places equal value on the failures in his family as on their eventual successes. Luther saved enough money to open two retail stores in the 1920s, but they went under during a recession. When the Great Depression placed many other retailers in the same situation, Luther was able to leverage his experience to either buy their inventory at a high discount or to be first in line at the bankruptcy auction.
When his son Hurley Calister Turner,“Cal,” took the valuable experience he had gained from working with his father and opened his own retail store, a poor choice of location prompted an early closure of the business. Luther stayed on the sidelines and let his son learn a hard-earned business lesson.
These stories are recounted with neither judgment nor apology. In the Turner family, failure is an inherent risk in playing the game. You learn from those mistakes. The one thing you don’t do is quit playing.
Luther and Cal’s wholesale buying skills were often handicapped by retailers who were too small to buy large quantities of inventory from them. So, despite past failures in the retail space, they began opening their own stores but with a different approach. This time they partnered with local businessmen to manage the stores. “Turners” would provide the wholesale merchandise and split the profits 50/50.
By the early 1950s, they had 36 stores, all in small Kentucky and Tennessee towns, grossing about $2 million annually. Then Cal, now Cal Sr. after the birth of Hurley Calister Turner, Jr., in 1940, had an idea.
Inspired by the “Dollar Days” sales that the larger department stores held once a month, Cal Sr. wondered why they couldn’t open a store where “Every Day is Dollar Day.” He imagined a store that would carry everything, like a traditional general store, but price everything at a dollar. Dollar General was born.
The concept was an immediate success and was quickly copied with such names as United Dollar and Top Dollar.
After earning a bachelor’s in Business Administration from Vanderbilt University and a three-year stint in the Navy, Cal Jr. officially joined the company in December 1965. What followed was a whirlwind growth period that would stretch the father-son bond to its breaking point.
The author is remarkably frank in describing the toll that success took on the Turner family, recounting several situations where Jr. and Sr. were often on opposite sides of a project, like “two bull elephants facing off.”
Helping Cal Sr. to make the transition from CEO to an advisory role provided Cal Jr.’s greatest challenge and prompted extensive self-reflection that helped to further define his own values and guide his future path of ministry and philanthropy.
My Father’s Business documents the trials and tribulations of three generations of a family where “family and business were one.” For current and aspiring entrepreneurs, the detailed stories of how three men with distinctly different leadership styles grew a company from rural Kentucky to the Fortune 300 make fascinating reading.